This is going from kind of fun to just kind of silly.
The Vancouver Canucks can’t lose.
Their professional, well-earned 3-1 road win Saturday against the playoff-bound Dallas Stars was the draft-lottery-bound Canucks’ ninth win in 11 games. The team that ranked 31st in the National Hockey League in defending — and was 27th in the standings — when Rick Tocchet took over as coach two months ago is 12-4-1 in its last 17 games and has allowed three or fewer goals in 14 of them.
With 10 games remaining, starting Sunday in Chicago against the hapless Blackhawks, the Canucks were in a tie for 23rd in the NHL. Vancouver will miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons, but if the Canucks finish 21st or higher they won’t be able to select Connor Bedard even if they win the draft lottery in May.
It doesn’t make sense — except for the legitimacy of their record the last five weeks. That makes sense.
Sure, the Canucks are playing without pressure and have seen a bunch of backup goalies like they did in the Stars’ Matt Murray, but there is nothing fluky or undeserving about what players are achieving as Tocchet transforms the playing style and (he hopes) the culture.
Goalie Thatcher Demko was solid again Saturday, stopping 25 of 26 Dallas shots, but certainly didn’t have to steal the game. The Canucks surrendered only 13 shots over the final 40 minutes and blanked the Stars’ dangerous power play on four chances while scoring their league-leading 14th shorthanded goal of the season.
Dakota Joshua’s finish from Nils Aman’s setup on a shorthanded two-on-one tied the game 1-1 at 18:54 of the first period when the Stars had been pushing to double their lead. Brock Boeser, on a nifty puck exchange with J.T. Miller, and minor-league callup Jack Rathbone scored goals 93 seconds apart early in the second period.
“I thought it was a hell of an effort,” Tocchet told reporters in Dallas. “I thought our defence were terrific. Obviously, Demmer was solid. And the forwards, we didn’t have one passenger tonight. And the PK was great. It was really a really hard effort from the guys.
“It’s a good confidence-builder for the guys when you can beat teams like that. I think it goes a long way with the culture.”
BUT MAKING NO SENSE. . .
The Canucks haven’t lost to the Stars since before the pandemic and have won six straight against a team that has been above them in the standings the entire time.
JACK BE QUICK
All it took for Rathbone to get another chance with the Canucks were six injuries on defence and two forced exits of defencemen in trades. Put another way, eight players who were theoretically ahead of him on the organizational depth chart had to disappear for Rathbone to travel back to the NHL from the American Hockey League for Saturday’s game.
It was the 23-year-old’s first game with the Canucks since he was banished to the minors in November. It’s hard to know if Rathbone is actually still the team’s best defensive prospect, considering all the players who were summoned from the Abbotsford Canucks ahead of him: Guillaume Brisebois, Christian Wolanin, Noah Juulsen — all of them now injured.
But it was hard not to cheer for Rathbone when he scored at 3:57 of the second period for what turned out to be the winning goal, a one-timer from the high slot as the mobile defenceman skated on to Andrei Kuzmenko’s patient pass as the fifth attacker on an outnumbered rush. The only Canuck behind Rathbone was Demko.
It was just the second NHL goal for the American who turned pro out of Harvard after the pandemic struck in 2020 and has been restricted by various circumstances, including his own injuries, to only 103 professional games over three seasons since then.
Brisebois’s undisclosed injury is considered day-to-day and he could play Sunday in Chicago, so Rathbone needs to make the most of whatever audition time he gets for Toccchet and new blue-line assistants Adam Foote and Sergei Gonchar.
Rathbone’s ice time Saturday was just 9:14. Given Tocchet’s stated admiration this week for the big, strong defence on the Vegas Golden Knights, it’s hard to see how the five-foot-10 Rathbone fits. But he had a big moment in Dallas.
BACK TO THE WHITEBOARD
With the power play badly lagging behind other improvements achieved the last two months, the Canucks went to an old-school, two-defenceman power play on Saturday and it looked. . . unusual.
With newcomer Filip Hronek joining Quinn Hughes on the top unit, the Canuck power-play looked at times like a donut with five players scattered around the perimeter and a lot of apparent uncertainty about who should be going to the unmanned slot where, you know, goals are more likely to be scored.
The unit looked especially disconnected during a second-period five-on-three that lasted for 72 seconds. At one point, forwards Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller were both positioned down low on opposite sides of the net without anyone in the “bumper”, leaving the three Dallas penalty-killers to monopolize the dangerous part of the ice.
But anything is worth trying these days with the power-play operating below 17 per cent for the last month. It would just be nice to try the 2D-PP after about six more practices.
BUT AS FOR THE PK. . .
For the first time since the opening week of the season, Canuck penalty killing has crept above 70 per cent which, if maintained over their final 10 games, will allow Vancouver to avoid having the worst penalty killing since the NHL began tracking efficiency in the 1970s.
The Canucks blanked the eighth-ranked Stars’ power play over eight minutes, and has killed 15 straight disadvantages. The PK, however, has been pretty good for a while. Since a dismal 6-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 13 — the Canucks’ last clunker under Tocchet — Vancouver’s PK is eighth in the NHL with a success rate of 85.2 per cent. Adding to the massive uptick in performance is that the Canucks have scored a hard-to-believe eight shorthanded goals during this time, offsetting the eight power-play goals they have surrendered.
That it took until March 25 to surpass the 70-per-cent mark tells you just how putrid the penalty killing was in the first half of the season.
Canuck winger Vasily Podkolzin missed the final 11 minutes with an apparent hand or wrist injury. Tocchet said the 21-year-old was hit by the puck, although replays showed him also getting sandwiched along the boards by two Dallas players.
After a difficult sophomore season that saw Podkolzin demoted to the AHL for a full reset and then reappear in the NHL as a more dependable, consistent player, the Russian scored in Thursday’s 7-2 romp against the San Jose Sharks and earned a promotion Saturday to the top line alongside Elias Pettersson.